COMMENTARY—Another View

Cloud computing: myth or reality?

The threat to our nation’s computer networks is real, and growing every day. Yet the point-level solutions we have come to depend on, even when combined with the most sophisticated security systems, can no longer adequately protect critical government information.

Given the mounting costs of information technology, organizations cannot hope to use their organic IT capabilities to deliver the defense-in-depth strategies needed to protect our critical IT assets. Those capabilities simply don’t have the agility and scalability to respond to threats in a timely way. Although it has its own challenges, cloud computing could be the only technology that can scale to meet the security threats of the future.

To date, cloud computing has been offered as the solution to a wide variety of IT issues: reducing costs, improving efficiency and promoting collaboration. Yet acceptance of cloud computing, especially on the part of corporations and other large enterprises such as government agencies, has been slow in coming. Concerns remain about the technology’s reliability in a large-scale enterprise setting, the upper limits of its scalability and, most of all, its security in a large-scale setting.

The cloud offers the potential to provide a level of security sufficient for most situations in both government and corporate computing environments — though there will also be a number of key enterprise applications involving complex legacy interfaces that either may not be ready for the cloud, or simply don’t need to be moved there. Cloud computing is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Cloud computing as defense-in-depth

Given the nature of the government’s computing environment, the business demands that are placed on that environment, and the government’s need for security, it is critical to see security as a multidimensional challenge that requires a holistic, defense-in-depth approach from a systemic perspective. It should not be simply a single-point solution that, once thwarted, leaves the business solution vulnerable.

Cloud computing possesses many features that argue for its use in this context. Its inherent architecture and its very power contain the source of the cloud’s strength as a secure environment.

The goal of defense-in-depth is to create a series of perimeters, each with its own authorization and authentication mechanisms that would keep people from gaining full access to the enterprise. The architecture would also allow the system to assess any threat to any parts of the environment, while at the same time working to move sensitive assets under attack to other areas.

Thus, it must include a Web tier, an application tier and a data tier, each of which might secure its assets differently. In its size and its dynamic nature, and the agility with which it can adapt to and control impending threats, the cloud offers just such an environment.

Structuring the cloud

The fact that the cloud’s structure is both logically centralized and physically distributed has the potential to give it a significant advantage in offering security. Just because storage architecture is centralized does not necessarily mean that it has a single point of entry. Since a cloud environment can be structured so that its stored data is logically, not physically, centralized it can be designed with fewer points of entry.

Indeed, the cloud’s architecture is based on a multilayered service-oriented architecture, and its flexibility allows for its various components, including its communication, storage and application services, as well as the facilities housing it and the people using it, to be compartmentalized for maximize security. Those compartments can be designed right into the fabric of the business solutions that reside on top of the architecture, creating an inherently resilient overall structure.

Moreover, the cloud’s agile, flexible computing architecture is well-suited to a defense-in-depth approach to security. By allowing services and data stores to be dynamically redistributed when necessary, based upon perceived or real attacks, both data and services can be compartmentalized and segmented to protect them from the threat, and then the attack can be defended against by moving it elsewhere.

Similarly, data under attack can be quarantined, while the cloud’s multiprocessing power can scan for malware and viruses, thus minimizing the time required to cleanse the data and bring it back online elsewhere in the cloud. In that way, business systems can be secured simply by leveraging the agility of the cloud itself. Agility can also be used to thwart denial-of-service attacks by quickly and flexibly establishing new security perimeters around the sections being attacked, while adding duplicate service areas to support main-line business operations.

Commercially available technology

Many of the commercial products on which a cloud computing environment might run — the facilities, processors, message queues, networks and storage spaces — have been engineered to operate in isolation, with the goal of keeping separate friends and foes, who might be operating in the same environment as their own corporate computational grid.

By the same token, the cloud’s compartmented architecture allows for powerful identity management and engineered authority controls to be built in as a part of its foundational fabric, thus enabling a defense-in-depth approach to system delivery.

A cloud computing environment also has the capacity to alleviate what has become, especially since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the government’s primary security concerns: continuity of operations, or COOP.

Stand-alone data centers are particularly vulnerable to a variety of attacks, not just in cyberspace but through power loss and bombs as well. Yet the cost of ensuring continuity of operations has been so high that all too often it gets minimal support and nominal funding, resulting in the implementation of the absolute minimum operational capabilities — at least until a catastrophic event occurs.

Since cloud computing already has virtualization and instantiation agility built into it, the foundation of its provisioning can quickly stand up while business continuity can be restored, regardless of changes to business needs or when under threat of an attack.

Security scenarios

Cloud computing has yet to meet every imaginable security concern, yet the combination of free-floating centralization, compartmentalization, agility and sheer power suggest a number of possible ways in which governmental computing environments might be made significantly more secure.

By exploiting the cloud’s ability to allow the rapid, flexible compartmentalization of data and services, a “demilitarized” computing environment could be created to segregate sensitive and less-sensitive data and processes. Not all services and data are at equal risk in business solutions. So protecting the core and ensuring the integrity of key business processes and data is possible with the agility and defense-in-depth elements which serve at the core of cloud computing.

A second possibility could involve the formation of a cloud environment that uses the cloud’s power and agility to intercept threats and thwart attacks by dynamically reallocating processors, storage and communication around the cloud.

The cloud’s power and ability to scale dynamically when called upon should allow for increased monitoring of potential threats and defense against them. Through such technologies as transaction replication and check sum validation, individual transactions and sets of batched transactions could be made significantly more secure.

Finally, the dynamic computing power of the cloud could help in developing strong data encryption that would enable data owners to thwart access to data in virtual space rather than trying to protect it through physical barriers. Deeply encrypted data would have the further advantage of being protected, even if it had been physically lost or stolen.

Not every government agency could move its operational systems or data to the cloud. What works for the Transportation Department or the Environmental Protection Agency might not be suitable for the Defense Department, depending on the degree of sensitivity of their operations and data. Every agency would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as part of an institutional risk analysis that considers the nature of the assets to be secured, and the degree of security required.

Intelligent security

The advent of true utility computing, or on-demand computing — embodied in the currently popular phrase, cloud computing, demands that we think not just about this technology’s vulnerabilities in the face of potential threats, but also its advantages for improving cybersecurity.

It is no longer a viable solution to consider locking up our technology behind ever-higher, more expensive walls, accessible only with ever-more cumbersome keys. Instead, the cloud demands a very different way of thinking about the meaning of security — not as a static wall but as a combination of zone defense and spread offense, dynamically responding to attacks and creatively generating new strategies to outwit the attackers, coupled with identity and authentication management. In short, the cloud can ultimately become an intelligent partner in our ongoing efforts to secure our most precious information.

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